On Campus

Cooperating with strangers

Will separate school board ensure Aboriginal student success?

These are tricky little quandaries. A community struggles to get its kids through high school, and every Tom, Dick and Sally thinks he or she has the answer. It happened when the Toronto District School Board talked about opening its first Africentric school, and it’s happening again now, with calls to create an Aboriginal school division in Winnipeg.

So, Sally here, with another opinion to throw into the mix. The difference? I’m not an enthused parent, community advocate, political leader or sociology PhD candidate. In contrast, I still wear many of the same clothes I wore in high school, and feebly swap university lecture notes with friends (some of whom happen to be Aboriginal) the night before exams. My point: I may not be any better informed than Tommy-PhD, but I am a little closer to the action.

Granted, I didn’t go to high school near a reserve, and I can’t tell you why the native dropout rates are where they are. But I do know teens who didn’t make it through high school. And no one’s proposing an “I have an unstable home life” school board, or a “Who needs school when I’d make so much money working full time!” committee.

My position is that kids don’t drop out because the curriculum doesn’t speak to them. A discussion of the “mothers” of Confederation wouldn’t have kept the 16-year-old pregnant student at my alma mater in school. Advocates for race- or gender-based alternative schools seem to rely on the premise that relevant material will keep bodies in seats. I just don’t think so.

Well, one might argue, can’t the dropout rates of certain communities be attributed to specific societal trends? Take, for example, ‘Community X’ with its high rates of teen pregnancy and poor high school completion statistics. Doesn’t it make sense to concentrate ‘Community X’ students under one school or board to create a catered learning environment, one which specifically addresses the causes of teen pregnancy to prevent dropouts?

Yes, that does make sense. I’m all for student-directed learning, a more holistic approach to education, classrooms that are about more than just facts and numbers. But while it may be “easier” to lump together students of like backgrounds, I don’t think it would ultimately be to their benefit. Each community, no matter how outwardly successful, has its failings. By isolating one group or another, aren’t we just “othering” them? Why not create a more holistic learning environment for everyone, where more than one community’s troubles are part of classroom discussion? Won’t it empower students to know that they’re not the only ones with statistics not on their side?

Even if a native school board is the answer to getting more First Nations students through high school (a premise of which I’m doubtful) what then? In university, it’s sink or swim. In the workplace, it’s ‘do your job.’ We’re all lumped together, and most of the time, success means cooperating with relative strangers. Hopefully, we’ll see each other as people. But if we keep incubating our kids in racial, cultural, or class bubbles, I’m not so optimistic.

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